Writing Tip 171: “Wind” vs. “Wend” (and the hijacking of “Went”)

If you’re in a crowd and you’re trying to get across the room, would you “wind” your way around the other people or would you “wend” your way around them?

How confident are you in your answer?

And let me ask another question: Have you ever wondered why the past tense of “go” is “went”? No? Well, are you at least a little bit curious now that I pose the question?

Knowing the answer to one will help you with the answer to the other.

It all goes back to a word-hijacking centuries ago, when there were two major terms one could use to denote traveling from place to place. One could “go,” or one could “wend.” “Going” was more direct; “wending” was sometimes less so, but I’ll get back to that.

The confusion between “wind” and “wend” often stems from the fact that people don’t think “wend” is a real word.

But it is. “Wend” is not a typo, and it is the correct word in the idiom “to wend one’s way.”

Yes, it’s a bit old-fashioned, but it pops up enough that it’s worth a conversation.

Here’s the difference between “wind” vs. “wend”:

  • “To wend” is to go in a specified direction often by an indirect route; it is always to move from one place to another.
  • “To wind” (for the sake of this conversation) is to move in a curving line or path.

A party guest might wend across a crowded room to get to the bathroom; a detour might wend through lesser-known city streets.

A party guest mind feel like they’re winding in circles mingling with their friends (no clear-cut A to B path); stripes might wind around a ball (they’re curving but not on a mission to get somewhere).

The difference is subtle but present. Admittedly, this is one you have to think about. Using “wend” properly is not for the grammatically faint of heart.

And what about that past tense of “go”?

Well, “wend” has fallen out of fashion a few times in its eight-hundred-year history, but its past tense didn’t always recede with it. The past tense of “go” used to be “gaed” or “oede,” depending on one’s geography. The past tense of “wend,” however, was “went,” following the same linguistic pattern as “send” and “sent.” As “wend” fell from popularity, “go” hijacked its past tense. Seriously. Word drama, folks.

Hence now, the past tense of “go” is “went.” Poor “wend” was forced to have a new past tense, “wended,” when it had its revival in everyday speech.

Who said there was anything dull about the history of language?